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The Order of Burning the Red Heifer

 

Precautions and Preparations

The event of burning a new heifer for its ashes, which did not occur too frequently, was an occasion of tremendous significance for the entire nation. Because of this ordinance's unique status, special precautions were taken and some unusual procedures were employed, during the process of the heifer's preparation. Especially stringent measures were taken to ensure that the priest who would be burning the heifer would not become impure.

The Dispute With the Sadducees

Some of these precautions were enacted as a direct result of the ongoing, confrontational dispute waged between the rabbis, the authoritative sages of Israel, and the Sadducees. One point of contention between them, figures prominently in the halachic issue of the red heifer's preparation. It deals with the priest who sprinkles the water of purification on another. Because the Sadduccess do not subscribe to the Mosaic tradition and its interpretation of Scripture, they held that in order for the officiating priest to be considered pure (before sprinkling the water on another), it was necessary for him to immerse himself in water, and also to wait a full day, until after sunset, and only after sunset would he be cleansed.

"Laws to Moses from Sinai"

The sages, however, received a tradition from Moses which established that immersion alone was sufficient for the priest, and it was not necessary to wait until sunset. This tradition is actually part of a large body of Jewish law known as "Laws to Moses from Sinai," which are laws which Moses taught directly to the Jewish people after having learned them himself on Mount Sinai from the Holy One, blessed be He. All of these laws were very carefully preserved and transmitted orally from generation to generation. Thus, even though there are occasional disputes among the rabbis of the Talmud concerning laws which are derived from the Bible by hermeneutic rules or logic, there are no disputes concerning any of the "laws to Moses from Sinai."

As mentioned earlier, the Sadducees did not accept any of the rabbinical interpretation, including these laws which were revealed to Moses. They had their own literal interpretation of Scripture, through which they removed themselves from the traditions of Israel. In this case, while it might seem that the Saducees were being more stringent than the rabbis, for they necessitated not only purification by immersion but an additional requirement of sunset as well - they were actually undermining the authority of the Sinai Revelation by creating their own rules which had no basis in the word of God.

Click here to learn more about the parallel to Yom Kippur.
In some ways, the priest who is entrusted with burning the heifer has a similar status to the High Priest, who must separate himself from his wife and family as part of his preparations for conducting the service on Yom Kippur... in order to insure that he will be in a state of purity when that awesome day arrives. Similarly, the Mishna teaches that seven days before the heifer is to be burned, the officiating priest is separated in the same manner, and secluded to a special chamber. This chamber was called the "Chamber of Stone," and was located in the northeast corner of the Temple Mount complex. It was constructed completely out of stone, and all of the vessels which the priest used within were also fashioned exclusively out of stone. This is because Biblical law mandates that the only material which is impervious to the penetration of impurity is stone. These measures were taken as another "extra" method of safeguarding the priest from inadvertently becoming defiled during the course of the week, thus rendering him unfit for attending to the heifer.

The special measures like separation to the Chamber of Stone, and others which we will discuss, were established as a direct result of the sages' dispute with the Sadducees - in order to emphasize that the sages were not lenient or, Heaven forbid, lax when it comes to the red heifer. For the misguided may even gain the erroneous impression that the Sadducees are more strict because they would require the attending priest to wait for sunset after his immersion. But Moses specifically taught that God's tradition does not require sunset to render the priest's final purity in this case.

As we shall see, it was of such importance to the rabbis to prove that we do not subscribe to the Sadducees' misguided and heretical view of Jewish law, that they even deliberately contaminated the attending priest before he began the process of burning the heifer, thus rendering him impure... in order to demonstrate that by his immersion in a mikveh, he may immediately begin the ceremony of burning the heifer, without having to wait for sunset of the same day.

On account of this, special practices were established regarding the heifer's preparation, which showed the seriousness and caution with which the sages of Israel and priests indeed conducted the entire matter of the heifer.

Sprinkling the Priest Daily - With Ashes of Previous red heifers

One such practice was to sprinkle the priest during the course of this week of separation, with a solution of the "waters of sanctification" which had been prepared from ashes made previously, from earlier generations. According to the Mishna, the priest was sprinkled every day from a mixture of all the ashes which had been produced until then, back to the heifer of Moses. For every time a heifer was burned, one third of the ashes were removed and kept by the priests for future generations.

Why was this sprinkling administered? After all, we know that this priest has not been allowed to come in contact with anything that could defile him; this was the very reason for his separation to the Chamber of Stone, and his every move there has been calculated to guard against contamination - he has even used vessels made from stone.

But it is still possible that before the priest withdrew to his chamber, he had unknowingly been exposed to the impurity of death. We know that according to the instructions of Numbers 19:12, one who has been exposed to death must undergo the sprinkling of the ashes on the third and seventh day following his exposure. Therefore, he is sprinkled every day of his week, in case this day happens to be the third or seventh day of the count.

"Special Courtyards in Jerusalem... "

A Grave in the Depths of the Earth

Another practice which was an extra measure of safety against impurity involved the halachic concept of a grave which may be buried deep within the earth, whose existence is unknown because it cannot be detected from the surface of the ground.

Biblical law with regards the impurity of death is quite unique. For if there is a grave which is concealed from sight, buried far below the ground with no indication of its presence on the surface - the power of the impurity is such that it radiates upward and out, through to the surface.

Thus, even if one has taken care never to come within the proximity of the dead, and has generally exercised caution not to become exposed to impurity, he still may be impure due to some occasion when he passed an area over an unknown grave within the earth's depths.

Normally, considerations such as these would be minor. The likelihood of such exposure is minimal and one can only be so cautious; a suspicion alone which cannot be verified as fact is not enough for an individual to be considered impure. In fact, the great codifier of Jewish law Maimonides rules that we are lenient in cases of doubt concerning ritual impurity in a public place. But since the precept of the red heifer is so important, with the purity of the entire congregation of Israel hanging in the balance, and in order to prevent unnecessary strife from the Sadducees, special precautions were taken to ensure that those attending to the heifer and its preparation would even be protected from the impurity of an unknown grave.

The rabbis sought to protect the separated priest who will burning the new heifer, from even the slightest possibility of impurity; for this reason they instituted that he should be sprinkled with the previous ashes all throughout the week. But the solution which purifies, the "waters of sanctification," contains another ingredient besides the ashes... the water, which the Bible specifies must be drawn from a natural source.

The Waters of the Shiloach

In the times of the Holy Temple, this water was taken from the Shiloach (Siloam) spring in the City of David, located at the foot of the Temple Mount. This spring is Jerusalem's original source of water, and it has always had great spiritual significance. Indeed, at the famed Festival of the Water Libation which took place daily during the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), the priests and all the participants would descend to this same spring, and there they filled a golden vessel with its clear waters, to be poured out on the Temple's altar at the first rays of dawn.

But an interesting question arises, and it concerns the person who will fetch this fresh water:

Who is Pure Enough to Bring the Water?

That individual must be pure beyond doubt, or else he will render the water unfit upon contact! How can water which he brings be used to mix the solution for sprinkling on the isolated priest, who will in turn be burning a new heifer to make new ashes... if he might also be impure! Since we can never be absolutely sure that one has not become defiled, and it is virtually impossible for a person not to have been exposed at some point in his life, how could a person ever be found who is pure, in order to bring the water for this procedure?

The Mishna records that during the days of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, this problem was solved in an extraordinary way:

"Double Insulation"

Special courtyards were constructed in Jerusalem, in such a way that they could not be penetrated by the force of impurity. Firstly, the houses within were built on top of solid bedrock which had never been disturbed or altered by man in any way since the dawn of creation. If the rock had been untouched until now, it was impossible for any body to have been buried underneath.

In addition, a hollow space of one tefach ( the Biblical measurement of a handbreadth; app. 10 centimeters) was left underneath, between the floor of the courtyard and the rock. Biblical law states that if there is any impurity rising from below, it will be stopped from ascending any further by such a hollow space. So, even though the complex could already be considered impenetrable to impurity because it was built on an intact area of rock, the buffer zone provided by the hollow space made for double insulation, and guaranteed that these were "safe houses" without a doubt.

Raising Children in Purity

Pregnant women would come and stay in these courtyards, and give birth to their children inside. These children would spend their early years within in the courtyard, not venturing outside until the age of eight. Thus, having been born in this protected environment and remaining within, they were never exposed to impurity in their lives. A miniature societal system is present within the complex, so that an infrastructure including food, medical care and an educational system provides complete care within.

These were the children who would gather the waters for the solution of "waters of sanctification," when the time came to purify the priest assigned the task of burning a new heifer and preparing its ashes.

When they became of age, they left the courtyard in a manner as unique as was their stay inside. Oxen were brought, and boards were placed across the oxen. The children rode out of the courtyards atop these oxen, sitting on the boards and carrying stone vessels to hold the water they will gather. Like the hollow space underneath the courtyard, the space below the boards protected the young riders from the possibility of any exposure from impurity emanating up from within the depths that may cross their paths, while en route to the Shiloach spring.

Gathering Water At the Shiloach

Arriving at the spring, they dismounted at its banks and filled the vessels with its water. Here, they could stand on the ground with no suspicion of impurity rising from below, since people are not accustomed to bury their dead under water (actually, one opinion maintains that they were so exceedingly cautious, they did not dismount but remained upon the oxen and lowered the vessels down into the spring by a cord).

Unique Construction of the Temple Mount

Their mission accomplished and the water safely secured, the children remounted the oxen and assumed their previous positions atop the boards, and rode up to the Temple Mount. Here, arriving at the eastern gate of the Temple, they were able to stand on the ground with no fear of contamination - for the Holy Temple with all of its chambers was erected with a hollow space below, and the entire Temple Mount complex was built upon overlapping arches, in the same manner as the bridge leading from the eastern gate to the Mount of Annointment, which we will discuss below.

The youngsters walked, vessels in hand, to the gate at the entrance to the Women's Court. There, a stone vessel known as the kelal was kept at all times, which held ashes of the red heifer. A child now takes from these ashes and mixes the proper amount into the water, preparing the mixture of "waters of sanctification." Then, it is the children who will sprinkle the attending priest.

The Levitical Priests       The Ceremony

 

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